Monday, January 24, 2011

Lighthouse Tournament Growing The Game

After a really good, fast skating game, it was Team Finland that beat Team Japan on the final day of Charles Wang's Project Hope Lighthouse Tournament for pee-wee hockey players from near and far.

These kids worked hard and had to win five games each in order to compete in the final. They were really both winners and all would go home with hardware and a lifetime of memories of their time here on the Island and the Coliseum ice.

Perhaps skating on NHL ice isn't THAT big a deal for the teams from Nassau and Suffolk counties. After all, the Coliseum is in their back yard. But for those 9 - 12-year-olds that came from China, Japan and Finland, it is the thrill of a lifetime. For many parents watching their children skate here, it is almost as big a thrill. Just ask Doug Weight who watched his son Danny skate in the tournament along with Charles Wang's son who scored a goal for his team.

This is the fourth year of this International event that not only is growing the game, but better cultural understanding.

On Sunday afternoon, hours before the Islanders would face the Buffalo Sabres and the Jets would face the Steelers, Charles Wang held a post tournament press conference in the Islanders media room. It seemed to be more like two separate press conferences as the local MSM was trying to pry information out of Wang on the state of the Lighthouse DEVELOPMENT project instead of the tournament as well as the Mexican standoff with Russian goaltender Evgeni Nabokov.

What Mr. Wang DID say was the yearly event is "all about the kids." Some of which have returned from previous years. Mr. Wang started this initiative to help build the sport of hockey in China where it was being played in a small area of -- 124,000,000 people. "That's four times the size of Canada." he chuckled. The initiative is working, there are now six times the number of players enrolled in the sport than four years ago.

So is he looking to one day have young men from China in the NHL draft? "We will find the Yao Ming of hockey yet, won't we." He says it every year and every year it breaks up the room. But the truth is, it is inevitable as explained by Chris Brown, who is interviewed below.

"Garth is saying 'Boy, these kids look good.' He's doing a lot of scouting." That also broke up the room. The truth is, Charles Wang enjoys being able to bring kids from all various parts of the world together in the sport of hockey not just to grow the sport, but to also grow character in these young players and give them life experience they wouldn't normally have.

There were eight teams participating this year, there may be more next year as more clubs from other countries become interested in the opportunity.

"Don't forget, last year, we sent kids over to China too for a Lighthouse Tournament that was played in China. And it opens their eyes to a world that's much bigger." And yet so small as the kids inevitably find out how similar they all are.

And that is the real lesson at hand. The team work, the competition, the learning experience at the 'grass roots' level on Sunday was far more important in the long run for a group of young athletes than the petulant disposition of a pampered 35-year-old goalie.

In order to have a better understanding of the Lighthouse Tournament, a decided to ask someone with first hand knowledge of it. Someone I had become familiar with through the power of Twitter. Chris Brown was a Chinese interpreter at last year's tournament.

I asked Chris what he thought the biggest bonus for the kids was from the experience?

"The kids from the Chinese teams come from a medium size town, Qiqihar, and one of the biggest city in China's Northeast, Harbin. Both are in the most northern province, Heilongjiang. This part of the country is more remote than many coastal parts of China so the biggest bonus of this experience was giving the kids exposure to foreign teams, coaches, programs, most of all, the Islanders organization. Hockey is still not a major sport in China so for this exposure is huge. The Lighthouse Tournament lets these Chinese kids know that they are part of an international community of hockey lovers."

Chris told me how enthusiastic the kids are, not just to compete, but to soak up the experience. "Interpreting for these kids was so much fun because they enjoyed everything. They appreciated everything. I can't tell you how big of a deal it is for them to see an NHL game. I used to live in a northern Chinese city, Jilin, and I would watch hockey. Hockey in China is on a much, much smaller scale. I watched the Jilin team play a Russian team and it was like two small college teams playing. I just say this to stress how cool it is for these kids to be watching the NHL."

Chris Brown not only agrees with Charles Wang about future NHLers arriving from China, he looks forward to it. "I lived in China when no one had heard of the NBA. The watershed moment was Yao Ming going to Houston. After that, the NBA became popular in China overnight. I talked to the kids about playing in the NHL and many are dreaming of that possibility. Some of these kids had real talent and I honestly think I was watching the future hockey Yao Ming. I don't know if hockey would take off in south China but I have no doubt that it could be huge in North China. When I lived in the northern city, Jilin, everyone ice skated during the winter. All it will take is a Chinese NHL star to be the catalyst."

I asked Chris if growing the sport is best served by government or private investors. "I think it is up to individuals like Charles Wang. Local governments in northern cities like Qigihar, Harbin, Jilin want to promote hockey but I don't think they have the resources. I have been waiting for hockey to get popular in China for years. I think Charles Wang has accomplished far, far more than a Chinese government entity could. I think NHL owners or organizations reaching out to China is the way for the sport to become more popular in China. As I said earlier, my biggest hope is for a hockey Yao Ming to emerge. Then it would be in the NHL's self interest to promote hockey."

I think every year, we get a little closer to that dream.


Isles Revamped said...

I am not trying to make it sound like sour grapes but the Teams from China, Japan and Finland did not face the best the area had to offer. They face house league players not travel players. There is a big difference in skill level. That is also the reason why several area teams did not participate. The teams brought in were loaded. Don't get me wrong it is a great event but not an even playing field. Our rinks are told no travel players. You do the math.

7th Woman said...

Yep, I spoke with someone about that. You are correct. The teams that traveled were hand picked, cream of the crop. However unbalanced the skill level, I would hope that our LI house leagues would want to participate as this is a great learning experience. Who told the local rinks no travel players? The tournament? I would love to know that piece of information. thanks.

JP in NJ said...

I think it's really admirable what Charles Wang is doing. What a thrill for the kids, and who knows where the experience may lead them in life.

Wang has good intentions. I'll give him that. He's a hard person to dislike, despite all his bumbling moves with this poor franchise.

JP in NJ

Anonymous said...

All the teams that attend know the foreign teams will probably better. That is not the point of this tournament. It is about having fun and playing on a NHL rink. Each US organization could easily bring peewee teams that would win. The guys running those clubs get it and invite their lower end players.